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Throwing Stones From the Ivory Tower: Forbes & Gene Marks’ “If I Was a Poor Black Kid”

December 12, 2011

Author’s note: Very rarely these days does something I read motivate me to immediately sit down and write about it, I’m sure in short order, you’ll see why I felt the need to take this issue on right away, particularly as a parent of Black children.



Some things should never be written.

This is one of them.

Gene Marks is a tech consultant who writes for Forbes magazine. His latest article, “If I Was a Poor Black Kid” represents one of those times an editor should have looked Gene in the face and said “we’re not printing this.” But that didn’t happen, because in the age of online news and journalism, editors are more worried about the number of mouse clicks they can get, and not the accuracy of the words on the screen. This has to be one of the most offensive posts I’ve read on the realities of education “poor black” kids, written by someone who has no earthly idea what he’s talking about.

In the most privileged, flippant voice he can muster, Marks lays out the case of why, in his eyes, poor Black kids are unmotivated and don’t take advantage of the resources around them (assuming those resources are actually around them) to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (the falsest notion this country has ever put forward) and go on to have a great life.

Case in point:

 “If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently.   I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.  Even the worst have their best.  And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities.  Getting good grades is the key to having more options.  With good grades you can choose different, better paths.  If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.”


Where does one even begin to deconstruct this paragraph?

In the first sentence, that’s where.

If I was a poor black kid… This is the equivalent of Marks saying “well this is what I would do if I were in your shoes, because with the knowledge I’ve gathered over a lifetime of not being in your shoes, I have the recipe for success. Follow it carefully and maybe you too, will one day be like me.”

Poor Black kids, even the ones to grow up and be successful, will never be like Mr. Marks, because they’ll never be White.  They’ll never be associated, on sigh,t with success as the default perception of others.

And so goes the entire, arrogant article on being poor and Black in America.

“And I would use the technology available to me as a student.  I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays.  That because (and sadly) it’s oftentimes a necessary thing to keep their kids safe at home then on the streets.  And libraries and schools have computers available too.  Computers can be purchased cheaply at outlets like TigerDirect and Dell’s Outlet.  Professional organizations like accountants and architects often offer used computers from their members, sometimes at no cost at all.”

Newsflash to Mr. Marks.  Being poor, Black, and owning a computer with internet access doesn’t equal conquering the digital divide, nor does it mean somehow the child can automatically unlock the gates designed to keep him away from resources, and thus academic success.

Marks goes about pointing out the obvious, without addressing reality

Yes, computers are available in schools, but not just generally open for use.  There is designated class time, typically, and if you’re lucky, designated access to a larger computer lab once a week.  Want to use a school computer outside of those times? Fine. But how is a student to get to school early, or get home if staying late?  Additionally, and this is something folks don’t even consider, where are students allowed to print their work to turn it in?  Teachers, don’t allow that, it costs too much money out of their pockets, and schools also often tow that same line.

Also, great to point out that libraries are a resource, but an underfunded library (or one that’s had to shut its doors altogether) isn’t a resource for anyone. Libraries are grossly underfunded across this country, but even more so for impoverished communities.

“I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school.”

This may seem practical, but in fact it highlights the true battlefield that is the digital divide and a free and open internet. We’re talking about a man who works in technology, yet, doesn’t address, or doesn’t even know to address the impacts his very field has on those who are ‘poor’ and Black- that whole pesky, perpetuation of social stratification. It’s never more apparent than when we look at technology and access.

So: Dial up, or high speed?

Sure, poor kids and their families can get their hands on a computer, and they might even get free internet access, or heck, AOL, but is that dialup, or is that high speed?  Marks makes the assumption that high speed, and thus the ability to use skype, or watch lectures, or download large reference materials is easily available if these poor Black kids just get their priorities straight and use the internet for the right reasons!

That’s not reality.

The reality is the achievement gap is largely based, not just on opportunity, but on the perception of the children by the adults, just like Marks’ perception of poor Black kids and their ability to succeed if they just try harder and utilize resources (again, never mind they may not actually have access to those resources).  This is the reality of systemic “isms” people do not like to address. The achievement gap is not some otherworldly creature we have no control over. It exists because of the people in the school systems, at every level, in and outside of the classroom, who perpetuate said isms.

The reality is, high speed/broadband is not readily accessible to everyone in this country.  It’s not just a matter of being able to pay the cost for it per household, it’s whether or not your city/county/town/neighborhood has the infrastructure needed to support that level of access.

The author should stop paying lip service to “poor black” kids and step up as an authentic ally and advocate for an open and free internet, and for an equitable infrastructure to support access for all people, regardless of race or socio-economic status.  That will go a hell of a lot farther than shaking his finger at “poor black” kids.

Marks says, even the smartest kids in the worst schools have opportunities.  He’s right, but they don’t have countless opportunities lobbed at them almost daily, like their White counterparts do.

Some kids can afford to take one opportunity and not the next, or skip 5 opportunities and then take the 6th.  If you only get one opportunity, but there are barriers beyond your control, preventing you from taking it, then what?

In no uncertain terms, Marks fails to understand and address the realities of being poor and Black in America, and by association, fails to address racism and his privilege as a White man in this country.  It’s very easy to write an article telling someone else what they should and should not be doing. It’s another thing to take on the very long, very painful process of dealing with one’s whiteness.

If I were a poor Black kid, or poor kid of any color, I’d be wondering why the streets in my neighborhood are too unsafe for me to get to school in the first place.

If I were a poor Black kid, I’d be wondering why my teachers grade my work lower than my white counterparts, even though I’m just as smart, if not smarter.

If I were a poor Black kid, I’d be wondering where my next meal was going to come from, since my parent’s unemployment benefits stopped and school meals just got cut because of the budget.

If I were a poor Black kid, I’d be wondering why my White counterparts across town, who also attend public school, have textbooks when I have none, have enough desks for the number of students per class when we don’t, and have advanced classes and untold opportunities, when we don’t.

If I were a poor Black kid, I’d be wondering why a rich (by comparison) White man was lecturing me, in of all places, Forbes magazine, which I’m not likely to ever read, on how I can do better and be better, while not reaching out to me where I actually am, and offering me any tangible resources to actually do better, and be better.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. PoorBlackSophomore permalink
    December 12, 2011 6:30 pm

    I am a poor black kid in high school, but somehow I wound up smarter than Mr. Marks:

    Forbes should give me a job to write or edit, if only so their readers can be afforded articles which demonstrate a clear knowledge of words, and the proper usage of things like “was” vs “were”, and “then” vs “than.”

    Just sayin’…

  2. The Spook Who Sat By The Door permalink
    December 12, 2011 7:34 pm

    >>”If I were a poor Black kid, I’d be wondering why a rich (by comparison) White man was lecturing me, in of all places, Forbes magazine, which I’m not likely to ever read, on how I can do better and be better, while not reaching out to me where I actually am, and offering me any tangible resources to actually do better, and be better.”

    There’s the rub. He’s just reassuring his Forbes fellows that it’s not their fault. Those dumb black kids have everything they need and still can’t pull themselves up. I bet the man hasn’t ever tried to personally engage a poor black kid, understand the limitations they’re working with, and try to help overcome them. But you already knew that.

    Everyone thinks their experience is universal. -sigh-

    /where ya’ been, Sable?

  3. December 12, 2011 7:48 pm

    “There’s the rub. He’s just reassuring his Forbes fellows that it’s not their fault.”

    I said as much on the twitters (lol), couldn’t agree more. I’ve been, yanno, around. Next column posting on Wednesday. Hope you’ve been well!

  4. cbrown206 permalink
    December 12, 2011 10:00 pm

    Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.
    – Herman Melville, “Poor Man’s Pudding,” 1854

    This article, and Newt’s recent comments, remind me of the quotation above.

  5. December 12, 2011 11:13 pm

    WONDERFUL quote, thank you!

  6. December 13, 2011 12:14 am

    If I were a poor black kid, or even a white working class kid, I would not follow Mr. Marks’ updated Cliff Notes theories of getting an education. In addition to his poor grammar which a actual poor black high school student recognized, Mr. Marks admits to being a “mediocre certified public accountant” on his bio on Forbes. According to Mr. Forbes his “biggest downfall” is “if its close enough its good enough.” Yikes! I would not let him do my taxes, let alone run a business.

    Yet, in spite of apparently being challenged by both English and math, Mr. Forbes is a former senior manager at KPMG and writes “Quicker Better Wiser and Quicker Better Tech columns/blogs for” He writes his article “If I Was a Poor Black Kid” with no sense of the irony that if he were a poor black kid, he would not have gotten where he is today with poor grammar, mediocre accounting skills and studying Cliff Notes. He is totally clueless as to how privileged he is.

  7. harriett walden permalink
    December 13, 2011 8:55 am

    Mr. Mark should spend his time writing about all the poor White children who are not making it schools all over American, give them some help,they need big help the media never focus on the poor White children who are not making it in school.What is not working in the Black Communities sells newspapers and books. Mr. Mark is a modern day Pimp.

  8. December 13, 2011 10:57 am

    Using his logic:
    If I were a cat, i would learn how to open cat food cans. That would make me the leader of all cats… WOOHOOOO
    I agree. It’s a pathetic article.

  9. December 13, 2011 11:11 am

    Well, if you look at the other stuff Marks writes about, it is not ever, or at least only rarely social commentary. I do wonder if Forbes laid off their editorial staff.

    Here’s my critrique:

  10. December 13, 2011 12:23 pm

    Once a week, I volunteer at a school in the inner city to teach an after-school class. Last week, the teacher brought two kids who were not in my class. He said that there was going to be a fight after school and four kids were going to jump them so he brought the kids here to be safe, figuring the others weren’t going to wait around 2 hours.

    This sort of thing happens ALL the time.

    The school doesn’t have any computer lab after hours. The only activity going on is the class I teach. It wasn’t safe for the kids to walk home (or to the library or anywhere else). Usually the teacher drives the kids home and occasionally I will drop off a couple.

    I run a consulting company but I still manage to donate a few hours to a school every week. Why doesn’t Mr. Mark do the same if he is so concerned about telling poor black kids how to run their lives?

  11. December 13, 2011 1:36 pm

    I read your piece, Greg, it was awesome.

  12. December 13, 2011 1:37 pm

    Good question.

  13. Bill Michtom permalink
    December 13, 2011 2:04 pm

    Great post! Way to kick ass!

  14. permalink
    December 14, 2011 2:08 pm

    Another rant for you…

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